Powering the planet

Powering the planet

Cindy Ryborz, marketing manager DC EMEA at Corning Optical Communications, explores how data centre operators are managing their carbon footprint.

This past year has seen the movement to combat climate change truly enter the mainstream consciousness. While many activists are focusing their efforts on the automotive and aviation sectors, some studies predict that the data centre industry may eventually outstrip the global airline industry for carbon emissions.

It makes sense. Today, data centres consume over 2% of electricity worldwide and the drive for data will only increase as 5G and IoT develops. As more and more digital data must be stored, this equates to a higher demand for electricity to power and cool the infrastructure that manages this flow of information.

What is certain is that businesses and operators in the sector have a significant part to play in championing sustainable practices. Fortunately, the data centre industry is constantly looking for ways to become more energy-efficient and there is real innovation, both technical and otherwise, that is addressing climate change head on.

Purpose-built for sustainability

As multi-tenant data centres and cloud computing grow in popularity, we are seeing many enterprise clients make a natural shift from older, more energy-hungry sites to purpose-built facilities that are using much more sustainable practices and solutions.

While colocation data centres do have some unique challenges in managing their energy consumption, notably inefficiencies caused by tenants managing their servers independently, there are several operators that are really championing sustainable practices and solutions.

Take Equinix’s LD6 data centre for example, based in Slough, England. It features indirect evaporative cooling and heat exchangers, rainwater harvesting and air handling units, as well as a bore hole to an underground water source. 

Implementing these specialised technologies means that for close to 85% of the year, LD6 is cooled purely by natural air and these kinds of design choices are increasingly being leveraged in a number of markets globally.

Location, Location, Location

Clever choice of location can also be instrumental in reducing emissions and a lot of companies situate themselves in areas with vast amounts of renewable energy, such as mines with a constant air temperature and access to chilled water.

One of our customers, Green Mountain, built a data centre in the interior of a mountain on an island in a remote Norwegian fjord. The 21,000 square metre facility with six mountain halls and several dedicated customer rooms utilises 100% renewable hydroelectric power and the efficient cooling of the adjacent fjord to provide a PUE of less than 1.2 – well below the industry average of 1.67.

Elsewhere, in even more extreme climates, Facebook’s data centre in Luleå, the North Pole, utilises the region’s sub-zero air and sea temperatures and has a PUE of just 1.07.

At the opposite end of the scale, some operators have even built data centres in desert environments as with the eBay data centre in Phoenix. Clever cooling systems and the benefits of the dry desert air make these locations surprisingly effective – and safe from any potential natural disasters such as flooding.

Smart technology choices

Artificial intelligence, and more specifically machine learning, is being deployed by some of the biggest players to improve energy efficiency in data centres. Google notably applied DeepMind machine learning to its data centres and reduced energy consumption for cooling alone by up to 40%.

This progressed from human-implemented recommendations to eventually implementing an AI system that directly controlled cooling, while under the supervision of Google’s data centre operators. Several years later in 2019 the annual power usage effectiveness for its global fleet of data centres hit a new record low of 1.10.

Impressive, and while these kinds of energy-efficiency gains may seem like the reserve of the very biggest players in the data centre market there’s signs that the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction.

Where are we now?

A recent study by researchers at Northwestern University represents one of the most detailed models to date of global data centre energy use. It found that while the world is indeed using more and more data, efficiency gains by the data centre industry are keeping pace with this demand and this has kept energy use roughly flat over the last decade.

So, for now, large and sustained commitments by the world’s leading data centre companies to source renewable energy is making a major difference to the industry’s carbon footprint. But, that’s not to say we can rest on our laurels. The research was quick to highlight that as demand continues to proliferate, efforts must intensify across the industry – including on the part of policy makers – to avoid a sharp rise in energy use in future.

Tackling climate change will require one of the biggest combined efforts in history and every industry must play its part. For the data centre market, continued knowledge-sharing and innovation will be critical to mitigate the energy demands of data hungry emerging technologies such as 5G and IoT in the coming years.